I know I’m not the only one who grew up either uninterested or unaware that whipped cream came out of anything other than a red spray can.

And I’ll admit it. That can has its place, at least when it comes to kid birthday parties and midnight trips to the refrigerator. As far as ready-made garnishes go, it’s not the worst.

But we can do so much better than “not the worst,” right? That’s where homemade whipped cream comes in. As far as from-scratch garnishes go, it’s not the hardest — in fact, it’s pretty easy, not to mention versatile, delicious and attractive, especially if you take into consideration these tips (for simplicity, I am sticking to dairy whipped cream).

You need the fat. I will remain vague to protect the vaguely innocent, but I’ll never forget the Thanksgiving when it came time to whip the cream for our family’s chocolate peanut butter pie. The unidentified cook whipped and whipped . . . and whipped. Nothing. Then we realized it was not heavy cream after all, but half-and-half. Oops. The problem? Fat is crucial to whipped cream. Half-and-half has, you guessed it, half as much fat as heavy whipping cream, 10 to 18 percent vs. 30 to 36 percent, according to Shirley O. Corriher in “BakeWise.” She explains that whipping air into heavy cream lines all the air bubbles with fat droplets, and with the fat stuck together, you get stability and firm whipped cream. In other words, whipped cream is not the place to skimp on fat.


(Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Amanda Soto/The Washington Post)

You need it cold. In order for the fat droplets to adhere to each other and not melt, they have to be cold. That’s why Harold McGee in “Keys to Good Cooking” suggests refrigerating your cream for at least 12 hours, though that shouldn’t be a problem since that’s where we store it anyway. Keep the cream chilled until you’re ready to whip it. You can give yourself extra insurance by freezing your cream, bowl or jar and beaters or whisk for 10 to 15 minutes — just make sure the cream doesn’t freeze, although the tools can hang out in the freezer for longer. Corriher says you can even add 2 tablespoons of shaved or finely crushed ice per cup of cream to help keep things cool.

Decide whether to stabilize or not. Whipped cream tends to be at its peak for just a few hours before it starts to weep liquid. McGee says you can either drain off the liquid or fold it back in. If you want something more stable that will also hold up for a day or two in the refrigerator, you can add some kind of stabilizer. In “Rose’s Baking Basics,” Rose Levy Beranbaum incorporates a teaspoon of cornstarch into a cup of whipped cream (it must be just brought to a boil, and then of course cooled, so the cornstarch can work its thickening and stabilizing magic). She also offers a version that adds a teaspoon of gelatin that is heated over the stove-top with a portion of the cream. Corriher’s self-described “sneaky way” gets gelatin into the whipped cream via an almost-melted marshmallow. She suggests one large marshmallow per cup of cream, which you want to quarter and heat either in the residual heat of a warm toaster oven or for just a few seconds in the microwave. The marshmallow pieces should be very soft. Whisk them little by little into your cold, already-whipped cream.


(Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Amanda Soto/The Washington Post)

Pick your method. There are a number of ways to whip cream. The fastest involves an electric stand or hand mixer. Unless I’m doing large amounts of cream, I prefer the hand mixer, so that it’s much easier for the beaters to come in contact with all of it. The whisk on a stand mixer will fail to come in contact with smaller amounts of cream. There’s the old-fashioned method, of course, which is beating air in by hand with a balloon whisk. McGee says you’ll get even more air into the cream this way than you would with an electric mixer — not to mention an arm workout (for me, anyway). You can also use a food processor or immersion blender to make whipped cream, though they will be denser than the above two options. Another way to get a denser, softly mounded cream is to use a jar. A pint or quart Mason jar works well, depending on how much you’re doing (a cup of cream for the former, two for the latter). Then just shake away.

Know when to stop. If that problematic Thanksgiving pie was one end of the spectrum, I’ve also gone the other way — overwhipped cream, which is basically butter. If you’re using a whisk or jar, there’s very little risk of this since you’re going much slower and you’re actively involved in the process. The danger grows once you start using a machine, especially a food processor or immersion blender, McGee says. So don’t! Walk! Away! Of course, the time varies depending on the method — and maybe your arm strength — which is why you want to rely on visual cues. It’s better to be safe than sorry, by which I mean it’s okay if you frequently stop your mixer to check your process.


(Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

How long you go is largely a matter of preference — softly whipped cream is lovely to mound on, say, a scone, Pavlova or pile of fruit, while stiffer whipped cream can be piped or even sandwiched inside a whoopie pie. (Keep in mind that the typical grocery store, ultrapasteurized cream will take longer to whip than pasteurized cream.) Most of the language around whipping cream involves “peaks.” Soft peaks, medium-firm peaks, stiff peaks, twin peaks (oh, wait). If you’ve seen anyone test this on television, it may have been someone dipping a whisk or beater into the whipped cream and then turning it upside down to see what the cream does — soft will droop a lot, stiff will stay upright. While fun to see, I find this unnecessary and potentially messy. I follow the same principle, but flipped. I dip the beaters or whisk in the cream and lift up so that a peak forms where the tool was raised out of the cream in the bowl. This is not a test to try if you’re shaking in a jar, but I found a good tell is that when it sounds like the cream has stopped sloshing against the glass and it has thickened enough to be spooned out.


(Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Flavor away. Especially if you’re serving the whipped cream with something very flavorful or sweet, you don’t have to add anything to it. Or you can choose to add sugar, 1 to 2 tablespoons per cup of cream. McGee says superfine sugar — add it once the cream begins to thicken — is ideal since it will dissolve more readily. Powdered sugar can serve that purpose, too. Flavor extracts (vanilla, almond, etc., 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon per cup of cream) and even a little booze (start with 1 tablespoon per cup of cream) work well, too. Incorporate these additions as well after the cream has started to thicken, and taste to make sure you’re on the right track. Best to underdo it and then add more rather than start with too much right off the bat.


(Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Freeze-dried fruit, as in this food processor whipped cream from Stella Parks at Serious Eats, is a colorful, flavorful addition. Or try cocoa powder for a chocolate version, although cookbook writer Alice Medrich had me at “dark chocolate whipped cream” with her recipe on Food 52, which essentially starts as a ganache by melting chocolate in the cream before it’s whipped. But feel free to get creative — citrus curds (see the filling on my Royal Wedding Cake, which combines whipped cream and lemon curd as a filling) and syrups are fair game, too. What flavors don’t you want? Fridge odors. Because there is so much air in it, whipped cream is essentially a sponge and will soak up whatever aromas are floating around your refrigerator. So do cover it up if you plan to store it at all.

More from Voraciously:

Freeze-dried fruit is the colorful, concentrated flavor boost your baking deserves

How to make better, more flavorful burritos at home

7 sweet treats that taste better in a cast-iron skillet